Let’s get right to the point: Roughly two weeks into the 2010 season, the Red Sox haven’t done a blasted thing right. They haven’t pitched. They haven’t hit. They haven’t played defense and they haven’t run the bases well.
Things won’t stay this way, of course, but what we have seen this far has been an utter joke and embarrassment, particularly for a team that projects to pay the luxury tax, which is to say that the Red Sox have a payroll exceeding $170 million. Red Sox manager Terry Francona knows as much, which is why he issued the following statement after yesterday’s latest butt-kicking, an 8-2 pasting by the Tampa Bay Rays that wasn’t nearly that close.
"You can look at it any way you want — early, late, middle, divisions,’’ Francona said in his customary postgame press conference. "We just need to play better baseball."
Translation: We stink right now.
OK, so they’re not this bad, and we all understand the bigger picture here. The question is not what the Red Sox are so much as what they will be, and it is still way too early to know that. Conventional wisdom suggests that it will take 6-8 weeks to make a fair evaluation of this team, which brings us to the middle or end of May. Then Theo Epstein will have to go out and make the annual maneuvers to improve the roster, assuming he hasn’t deemed the club a lost cause.
For the moment, the particulars have been downright gruesome, opening the Sox up to criticism and second-guessing in the wake of the "run prevention" mantra: the vaunted starting rotation has the highest ERA of any such group in the league. In the American League, only the Oakland A’s and Detroit Tigers have made more errors than the Red Sox; only the wretched Baltimore Orioles have allowed more unearned runs. The Red Sox bullpen is tied for the league lead in losses, and the Sox have scored fewer runs than every team but the Orioles, Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers.
As for the base running, David Ortiz got thrown out stealing last week. Adrian Beltre got thrown out at second base trying to extend a single. And, of course, Kevin Youkilis was thrown out at the plate with nobody out in the sixth inning of a 1-1 game on Friday (an eventual 3-1 loss) thanks to a poor decision by first-year third base coach Tim Bogar.
Even the effects of Fenway Park, once a cure-all for this team, have been ineffective. Possessors of the best home record (373-194, .658) and top-ranked home offense (5.94 runs per game) during the first seven years of the Theo Epstein Era (2003-2009), the Red Sox are currently batting .229 and averaging 3.3 runs per game at Fenway.
Coming into this season, we all knew the questions surrounding the Sox. As the lineup has deteriorated in recent years, the Sox made an attempt to beef up their pitching and defense while protecting their elite prospects. We wondered whether they could beat good teams, many of whom have been on their dance card through the early stages of this season. Thus far, the Sox are a combined 2-8 against the Yankees, Minnesota Twins and Rays, all of whom are playoff contenders. Entering tonight’s series opener against the Rangers -- no doormat they -- maybe it says something that the Sox’ only series victory has come against the Kansas City Royals.
The good news? The Orioles are here next. Then the Sox go to Toronto before facing Baltimore again. Go back and look at the Sox’ general performance last season, and what you’ll find is that they played their best when the schedule got softer than marshmallow.
Minus the obvious concerns about the offense, here is something to keep an eye on in the coming days and weeks: the defense up the middle. For all of the talk about the Sox’ improved ability to prevent opponents from scoring, Mike Cameron has played, at the very best, an average center field. Ditto for Marco Scutaro at shortstop. Coupled with the well-known issues the Sox had at catcher coming into the season – opponents are now 22 of 23 in steal attempts – a line as brittle as the San Andreas Fault seems to run from home plate to center field wall.
Again, all of this could change in an instant. The starting pitchers (specifically Jon Lester) are far better than they have performed, and that alone will go a long way toward improving the results. But the Red Sox have set a very high standard for themselves in recent years, and a relatively mediocre 2010 campaign isn’t going to sell to a following that has become terribly, terribly spoiled.
Then again, at the moment, mediocrity doesn’t look so unappealing.
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